By Lara Climaco i FilAm Star Correspondent

Five more towns in Palawan will be developed for tourism to complement established destinations Puerto Princesa City, El Nido and Coron and the upcoming San Vicente town, touted as the next Boracay with its 14-kilometer stretch of white sand beach, where an airport was opened in May.

“We have so much to offer and the largest absorptive capacity,” said lawyer Gil Acosta Jr., provincial information officer of Palawan, in an interview with FilAm Star earlier this month.

The largest province in the Philippines, with a land area of almost 1.5 million hectares (excluding Puerto Princesa’s vast domain of more than 250,000 hectares because the latter is an independent city), Palawan is bigger than the entire Ilocos Region. It is composed of 23 municipalities, almost half of which are spread across more than 1,700 islands and islets surrounding the mainland that is Palawan Island.

Although Boracay Island holds a distinct charm with its tranquil waters and is well-loved by regulars, it is no match to the mega-diversity presented by Palawan. By sheer size alone, Boracay pales in comparison with its land mass of about 1,000 hectares.

Known as the last frontier, Palawan has it all — from culture to adventure.

Already famous for its landscape and seascape, perhaps it is little known that the place also boasts a lot of history. The town of Taytay, for instance, is home to Fort Sta. Isabel, a historic landmark built in 1667. The Cuyo archipelago, meanwhile, is the oldest town in Palawan with preserved Spanish architecture dating back to 1680. These two towns plus nearby Dumaran and Magsaysay towns are the areas being lined up for tourism development in the southern part of Palawan. Up north will be Linapacan, an island municipality whose jurisdiction was separated from Coron, bearing similar vistas.

The provincial government’s vision is to drive tourist traffic from 1 to 1.5 million this year to three to five million by 2022, Acosta said.

The province’s two-lane national highway is being converted into a six-lane super highway spanning 600 kilometers from Bataraza in the south all the way to El Nido, the northernmost tip of the Palawan mainland. The PHP 30-billion road widening project started July last year and is targeted for completion by 2020.

New international airports will be built at Brooke’s Point in the north and Taytay town in the south, where direct flights to and from Europe would cut the trip to El Nido to about an hour. Currently, it takes about five to six hours to travel by land from Puerto Princesa, the main gateway to Palawan which is located in the middle of the mainland, to El Nido.

Already, direct flights to South Korea, Taiwan and China have made these three countries the top three tourism sources dislodging the United States to the fourth slot.

According to Acosta, Palawan is targeting greater tourist flow from BIMP-EAGA, the East ASEAN Growth Area with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Timor Leste as members. The massive infrastructure build-up includes the upgrading of the province’s four roll-on, roll-off (RORO) ports into cruise ports. Fifteen hospitals will also be put up such that there would be one hospital for every kilometer.

By 2020, the Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape is expected to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adding to the allure of Palawan which already has the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park as heritage destinations. Mt. Mantalingahan is the highest point in Palawan and its protected area covers more than 120,000 hectares.

To make the province’s rich resources more beneficial to Palaweños, the provincial government supports moves to divide Palawan into three provincial jurisdictions because this would set the stage for its designation as a region. Currently, Palawan is part of Region IV-B or MIMAROPA, where it has to share its resources with Mindoro, Marinduqe and Romblon.

“We don’t mind sharing but we have to look after Palaweños first,” Acosta said, citing that the province’s poverty index, although reduced from 62 percent to 55 percent, is much higher than the national average of 21.6 percent.

The bill to convert Palawan into three provinces is pending before Congress. Should federalism moves gain ground, Palawan is eyeing statehood as a means to gain more from the province’s extraordinary resources and prospects.